Saturday, August 08, 2009

"The Underground Railroad never happened."


Michiana--Of course it did, and it was more widespread than bigots and racists here in Northern Indiana would care to admit.

Whether the local Klaverns around here or foaming-at-the-mouth racists like attorney Tony Zirkle want to admit it or not, a lot of people around here were involved in the hiding and ferrying of runaway slaves into Canada and other "free" states that wouldn't cooperate with slave hunters in returning the "property" of slaverholders in the American South and the border states.

My own father--not exactly someone I'd ever refer to as racially progressive in any sense--even had to admit this to me. During the 1970s, he did a lot of work on construction sites throughout Michiana as a civil engineer (the area I live in was once part of Michigan, and the borders might be contested again soon, another story for another time...) and he and his coworkers found several sites that were part of it, even tunnels that weren't on any map, completely unknown until their discovery by the construction crews.

But besides being a nexus for the Underground Railroad, Michiana has also been yet another place where local folklore once flourished. In 2005, folklorist Carl Lindahl visited the Suggs house and Underground Railroad museum, still run by the family of the same name up in Vandalia, Michigan, right outside of the city of Niles.

Lindahl's article is about a collection that was released at the time, but his observations about the Suggs patriarch J.D. Suggs and the legacy of certain folklore collectors from the last century are interesting ones:
Much more commonly, however, I emerged from the listening experience with enhanced respect for the collectors and for the positive bonds they had forged with the storytellers. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of this sort was Richard Dorson. Dorson has been roundly (and rightly) taken to task for many of his statements about the nature of African American narrative, especially his contention that it was a “borrowed” tradition —adapted from European sources rather than being “truly” African American. Such theoretical positions have long been discredited, but they have influenced many folklorists, including myself, to belittle Dorson’s work with African American narrators and narratives. So I was astonished to find that the children of Dorson’s favorite African American storyteller, J.D. Suggs, not only remembered Dorson, but cherished their memories of him. Their father had had a vision of “black and white coming together”—and the Suggs children have interpreted that vision in terms of Suggs “coming together” with Dorson. When I drove up to the J.D. Suggs Underground Railroad Museum and Historical Site in Vandalia, Michigan, I was stunned to find two metal silhouettes —one of Dorson, painted white, and one of Suggs, painted black—facing each other. The silhouettes were fashioned on the model of a photo of Dorson and Suggs that Suggs had carried with him until the day he died. In August 2004, shortly after American Folktales had been released, I attended the J.D. Suggs Freedom Festival at the museum and emerged from my car to find the Suggs family gathered in a circle around the metal cutouts of Suggs and Dorson.
The recordings of Suggs and Dorson reveal a strong mutual affection based on the two men’s common love of story. These and similar recordings from other storyteller- collector teams underline the importance and redeeming quality of fieldwork. We may get it wrong theoretically, our scholarship may sometimes seriously misrepresent our “informants,” but as long as we can record their remarkable performances and deal with them personally, in an atmosphere of mutual respect, we have done something remarkably right. The recorded performances will survive our misperceptions and, through such archives as the AFC, be available for their grandchildren and ours. We justify our existence by prolonging that of the storytellers.
The Archive of Folk Culture is in many ways America’s folkloric memory. There is no substitute for the wealth of oral art and wisdom to be found there. (Lindahl, Carl. "The Making of American Folktales," Folklife Center News, Winter/Spring 2005, Volume XXVII, Numbers 1-2)
God love the common man, the only conscience America's ever had or ever will have, because it's not going to come from above. The Suggs House Freedom Festival is being held today and tomorrow in Vandalia, Michigan. Its main-thrust is racial unity between African-Americans and Euro-Americans and a reminder that the nation most of us has always wanted has always been there, right under our eyes all along, if only we heed the call. Most of us already have in our hearts and minds, the real battleground.

Listing of local events that include the Suggs Freedom Festival (Aug. 8-9): http://www.southbendtribune.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090705/INTHEBEND/305029998/1044/Ent

Lindahl, Carl. "The Making of American Folktales," Folklife Center News, Winter/Spring 2005, Volume XXVII, Numbers 1-2: http://www.loc.gov/folklife/news/news-text-winter-spring2005.html